“For I must do it justice; it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
(I originally wrote this post in the wake of Obama’s election four years ago. It tells the story of how the great Edmund Burke suffered electoral defeat in 1780 for standing up for principle. It reminds us that fighting for that which one believes in, no matter the outcome at the polls, is never a real defeat over time.)
So wrote Edmund Burke, brilliant writer and member of Parliament, of the Catholic penal laws in the Eighteenth Century. Son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, suspected in his lifetime, probably incorrectly, of being a secret Catholic, Burke was a man who fought during his life for many causes: reform in Parliament, support for Americans in their fight against oppression by the English government, prosecution of Warren Hastings for his misrule in India, his crusade against the French Revolution, all these and more engaged his formidable intellect and his luminous pen. However, one cause he championed from the beginning of his career to the end of it: relief for Catholics in Ireland and England from the Penal Laws.
What were the Penal Laws? A series of statutes dating from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and codified and harshened after the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, to transform Irish Catholics into helots in their own land and to keep English Catholics a despised and helpless minority. Burke summarized the penal laws nicely in a speech to his Bristol constituents on September 6, 1780:
“A statute was fabricated in the year 1699, by which the saying mass (a church service in the Latin tongue, not exactly the same as our liturgy, but very near it, and containing no offence whatsoever against the laws, or against good morals) was forged into a crime, punishable with perpetual imprisonment. The teaching school, an useful and virtuous occupation, even the teaching in a private family, was in every Catholic subjected to the same unproportioned punishment. Your industry, and the bread of your children, was taxed for a pecuniary reward to stimulate avarice to do what Nature refused, to inform and prosecute on this law. Every Roman Catholic was, under the same act, to forfeit his estate to his nearest Protestant relation, until, through a profession of what he did not believe, he redeemed by his hypocrisy what the law had transferred to the kinsman as the recompense of his profligacy. When thus turned out of doors from his paternal estate, he was disabled from acquiring any other by any industry, donation, or charity; but was rendered a foreigner in his native land, only because he retained the religion, along with the property, handed down to him from those who had been the old inhabitants of that land before him.
Does any one who hears me approve this scheme of things, or think there is common justice, common sense, or common honesty in any part of it? If any does, let him say it, and I am ready to discuss the point with temper and candor. But instead of approving, I perceive a virtuous indignation beginning to rise in your minds on the mere cold stating of the statute.”